Necessity Was the Mother of Invention — and It Changed Tastes
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
For years I’ve wondered how taco ingredients came to be spread over rice and eaten that way here in Okinawa rather than being served in a crispy taco shell like it is in the states and other locales. Everyone — my wife, Okinawan friends, magazine articles, etc. — all claim that “taco rice,” as it is called here, was created in Okinawa. So, I decided to do some research on its origins.
In 2015, Anthony Bourdain, the late American celebrity chef and host of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” came to film in Okinawa. His CNN program featured cuisines and cultures from all over the world. I didn’t get to see him during his visit, but I did see his Okinawa program that fall while on temporary assignment in Georgia for my military work. Bourdain covered topics such as the Battle of Okinawa, karate, the longevity of the Okinawan people . . . and taco rice. It was interesting to finally learn about the origins of taco rice while I was halfway around the world from my now-home in Okinawa.
In the program, Bourdain traveled up north to Kin-Cho (Kin Town), where Matsuzo Gibo is believed to have concocted taco rice in 1984. Unfortunately for Bourdain, Gibo-san had died a year earlier, in 2014, so he had to get his information from Gibo’s granddaughter, Sayuri Shimabukuro. She operates King Tacos, which Gibo opened in 1985.
Shimabukuro said her grandfather survived the Battle of Okinawa, but in order to make a living after the war, he had to find a profitable venture. His focus turned to the U.S. military, which governed Okinawa from 1945 until 1972 as the U.S. Civil Administration Ryukyus. Gibo became friends with a man from Hawai‘i and learned English from him. That enabled him to converse with servicemen and offer himself up as an interpreter. He also opened a bar in Koza in Okinawa City and continued to seek out areas where he could be profitable near U.S. military bases before finally settling in Kin-Cho in the 1960s.
In Kin, he purchased land near some burial tombs and opened a bar. When Okinawa reverted to governance by Japan in 1972, the yen exchange rate hiked the cost of everything off-base, so the U.S. servicemen began spending their greenbacks on entertainment and recreation on-base. Gibo-san then had to think of other ways to support himself and his family.
In 1984, he opened Parlor Senri outside the main gate of Camp Hansen, a U.S. Marine base in Kin-Cho, where he served dishes familiar to Americans, such as tacos. He also created a quick and easy-to-make dish called taco rice, which was inexpensive, filling and appealing to American taste buds. The new creation didn’t sell at first. In time, however, it caught on. Marines would come by after a night of drinking in town, looking for something to eat before heading back to their base. Gibo’s taco rice caught on and in the mid-1980s, he opened King Tacos. Besides the restaurant in Kin-Cho, he also opened locations in Okinawa City, Uruma, Kitanakagusuku and Ginowan.
DIY Taco Rice
My culinary skills are pretty limited, but taco rice is a pretty standard dish here, so I thought I’d try making some myself. Lucky for me, I have access to the commissaries on the U.S. military bases, where ground beef, taco seasoning, salsa and cheese are readily available and cheaper than off-base. The vegetables tend to be fresher and less expensive off-base, so I usually buy my produce from Big Grocery Store or the Yunta Ichiba JA Farmers Market in Yomitan.
I’m one of those men who can cook only rice and instant ramen, so it’s a good thing that the only “cooking” required to make taco rice is browning the ground beef. I set our gas stove to really low heat and let the meat cook slowly. After the beef had cooked, I rinsed the contents in a colander under running tap water before placing it back in the pot. I then added half a package of the seasoning and mixed in a little bit of water before serving it in one of the makai (Uchinaaguchi for “bowl”) that I got from Meiko Kinjo, my Yachimun No Sato master potter-friend.
It takes only a few minutes to cut up the lettuce and tomatoes and open the package of cheese and bottle of salsa. After scooping some hot rice into my favorite bowl, I ladled in my taco fixings and was ready to dig into my homemade taco rice.
Taco Rice Restaurants
In Hawai‘i, people have different opinions about plate lunches from different drive-ins. The same applies to BBQ ribs as I learned during my five summers in Georgia at the tail end of my military career. Okinawa is no different when it comes to Okinawa soba and taco rice, so I decided to try out a few locations around town.
First stop: Taco Rice Cafe Kijimuna in the Depot Island area of Mihama in Chatan. The cafe, which is located on the second floor, is named after the kijimunaa, the mischievous tree spirit in Okinawan folklore that is said to live in banyan trees and bring wealth and good fortune. You have two basic choices. Besides the normal taco rice with meat, lettuce, tomatoes and cheese for ¥680 ($6.20), there’s another option called the “Omutaco” with a fried egg on top for ¥780 ($7.10). You can then select the type of meat you want as well as whether you want it prepared mild, spicy or with curry flavors. Or, you can request chili beans instead. Lots of choices.
For a little bit more, you can also top your taco rice with a variety of items, including avocado, jalapeno and garlic; corn and Mozzarella cheese; bacon and Mozzarella cheese; or an assortment of four cheeses (Mozzarella, Cheddar, Parmesan and Gouda). I chose another topping — teriyaki chicken — for a total price of ¥980 ($8.90). It turned out to be better than I expected.
The four-cheese Omutaco rice is the most expensive menu item at ¥1,080 ($9.80). Soft drinks can be purchased for ¥200 ($1.80), and there are other items available on the menu, including chicken nuggets, french fries, onion rings, fish and chips and soup. In case you’re wondering, yes, they have Orion Beer (draft and non-alcoholic bottles).
I also visited Charlie’s Tacos in Okinawa-Shi (Okinawa City), which is located on Chuo Park Avenue (aka BC Street) near Gate 2 of Kadena Air Base. It’s a shorter walk from the Korinza Mall and there’s free parking nearby. When Keiko and I began dating in 1995, we would check out different eating places every weekend. She wanted to take me to a famous taco restaurant frequented by local Okinawans, U.S. military personnel and tourists alike. I thought it was odd that Mexican food was such a hit here.
I don’t know how the Okinawan owner got his name, but Charlie’s Tacos was the first Mexican restaurant to open serving tacos. That was in 1956. It catered to the tastes of American military personnel, who had begun living amongst the locals after the war. Taco rice was later added to Charlie’s menu.
I tried a regular-sized plate of “Charlie’s Rice” for ¥750 ($6.80). The small serving costs ¥490 ($4.45). For ¥890 ($8.10), you can get the large plate and choose your meat flavor — mild, spicy or a combination of the two. A few minutes after I placed my order, a woman server in a cap and apron emerged from the kitchen with my taco rice and eating utensils on a tray.
Charlie definitely has his own style of flavoring the meat and putting everything together. I could even choose between a sweet-tasting sauce or salsa. I was the first customer of the day when it opened at 11 a.m. A short time later, several groups of locals came in, everyone from families to business people. As I ate my serving of taco rice, I looked at the numerous framed pictures of famous Japanese people and U.S. military personnel who had eaten there and shared their memories and messages of thanks with Charlie.
Talking about taco rice wouldn’t be complete without visiting the place where this dish was born, so I retraced Bourdain’s footsteps and drove up to Kin-Cho to visit the original King Tacos store with my wife Keiko and our son Aki. It’s within walking distance of Camp Hansen’s main gate. We parked a few blocks away at Kin-Cho Active Park since there’s no parking for the restaurant. The park doesn’t charge a fee, but users are asked to limit their time to one hour or find parking elsewhere. We walked past several stores, bars and eating establishments and came upon King Tacos. We ordered as soon as we entered. The menu was simple compared to the many options offered at Café Kijimuna and Charlie’s.
I chose the taco rice with cheese and lettuce for ¥700 ($6.35); Aki ordered a taco cheeseburger (taco-flavored meat instead of the traditional hamburger patty) for ¥400 ($3.65); and Keiko selected individual pieces of barabara chicken (shredded chicken) for ¥800 ($7.25). We were the only customers in the shop at the time so our orders were ready in a few minutes. We carried our packed tray of taco items up to the second floor, where there were several tables with a partial view of the Pacific Ocean.
We all chuckled because we couldn’t believe the serving size of each item. Aki’s taco cheeseburger was served in a sandwich bag to keep all of the ingredients in the burger. After taking it out of the bag, he looked at it curiously, trying to figure out how and where to take a bite of it before finally sinking his teeth into his sandwich, which was as thick as a McDonald’s Big Mac.
Meanwhile, I was trying to remove the rubber band from the flimsy plastic container that held my taco rice, trying to keep the overflowing ingredients from spilling out. I squeezed King Taco’s salsa generously on top of everything, took a few bites and realized exactly what Gibo-san was thinking when he contemplated how to make a dish that was super delicious and filling. Keiko and I shared the taco rice and barabara chicken with each other. A short time later, local Kin-Cho residents, Marines and even tourists began filling up the establishment.
Going to a “parlor” style restaurant for dinner with the family and enjoying ala carte items had never crossed my mind. After finishing our meal, which totaled ¥1,900 ($17.25) for the three of us, I told myself that I would rather eat dinner here again than go to a sit-down restaurant.
After this experience of hunting down the origins of taco rice, I began thinking about the ties that connect people all around the world. I had never heard the story about Hawai‘i’s Uchinanchu having sent 550 pigs to Okinawa as part of the postwar relief effort until almost 22 years after I settled here. That opened my eyes to the deep connection between Okinawa and Hawai‘i. Every time I eat Okinawa soba or other dishes with pork, I am incredibly grateful for the humanitarian support Hawai‘i shared with Okinawa and the kizuna bonds between my two island homes.
Likewise, I’ll never eat taco rice again without the same feelings of deep appreciation for how Gibo-san and the Okinawans had to adapt to survive and the challenges they overcame to prosper in postwar Okinawa.
Where can you find taco rice in Hawai‘i? It’s easy enough to make it yourself at home — just substitute a bed of rice for a taco shell. Or, there are two Honolulu restaurants that make their own taco rice — Ethel’s Grill in the industrial district of Kalihi (232 Kalihi St., phone: (808) 847-6467, www.tastyislandhawaii.com); and Izakaya Naru in Mö‘ili‘ili (2700 South King St., phone: (808) 951-0510, www.naru-honolulu.com). Both restaurants have limited hours, so call ahead.
Colin Sewake is a keiki o ka ‘äina from Wahiawä, O‘ahu, who served with the U.S. Air Force in Okinawa, where he met his future wife, Keiko. He decided to make Okinawa his permanent home. Colin retired from the Air Force and, later, from the Air Force Reserves. He and Keiko have two children and make their home in Yomitan.